Why kids grieve in unexpected ways

People often use the word grieve to mean an emotional reaction to death. But grief is a common response to loss of any kind.

Kids show grief in different ways. But for some who learn and think differently, the feelings can be more complicated and the signs more difficult to recognize.

Your child may grieve over things you wouldn’t think about or in ways you wouldn’t expect. That can be confusing, especially if your child is behaving differently than usual and you don’t know why. 

You may wonder: Why is my child suddenly so clingy? Why isnt my child talking about this loss?

Here’s what might be going on.

What kids may grieve over 

Everyone grieves for different things and in different ways. 

Many kids don’t just grieve when they lose someone important to them. They also grieve when they lose something that was important to them, such as:

  • Not being able to hang out with their friends 

  • Seeing someone they care about get sick or even hearing about people they don’t know getting sick

  • Knowing that a family member has lost a job and that means money will be tight

  • Losing comfort objects or activities (like getting “too old” to play with a certain toy or not having Tuesday pizza nights with the whole family)

Sometimes you may not expect kids to feel loss because there’s something new and exciting that replaces what they’re losing. For kids who learn and think differently, that loss can be more pronounced.

That’s especially true if what they’re losing is something they worked hard to achieve. Here are some examples:

  • Your child can feel accomplished about moving to a different age group in sports and can feel the loss of the familiar team and routine. 

  • Your child might be excited to move up to middle school and still grieve leaving elementary school behind. 

  • Your child can enjoy distance learning and still grieve the loss of in-person learning.

What grief may look like 

When kids are mourning the loss of someone or something that was important to them, you may expect them to cry or to be sad and angry. After all, it’s common for kids who are struggling with things beyond their control to lash out in anger. 

But some kids show grief in unpredictable ways. Kids who have trouble with impulse control, managing emotions, and flexible thinking may even react in ways that seem inappropriate to the situation. 

Some may withdraw or act as if they’re not bothered at all — even making jokes to cover their feelings. Others may get stuck and be unable to stop talking about what’s on their mind, even if you’ve already answered all their questions and talked about their worries. 

Younger kids or kids who have expressive language disorder may not be able to put words to what they’re feeling. It can also be hard for them to ask what they need to feel better.

Instead, your child might be more afraid and anxious than usual, have increased tantrums or meltdowns, or want to be babied. Older kids may be grouchy or defiant, or they may have trouble concentrating.

If you and your child are grieving the same loss, your child may actually be more helpful and thoughtful than usual. This often happens when kids are trying not to worry the adults in their lives or to distract themselves from their own grief. 

And for many kids, grief may cause physical symptoms, like stomach aches, headaches, changes in appetite, or trouble sleeping. 

How you can help 

When kids grieve, it’s not always easy to know how to respond. But it’s important to let your child know that everyone grieves and that there’s no right way to do it. In fact, it’s natural to feel sad. 

Tell your child that you know the feeling of loss is real and that you’re there to listen. Talking about a shared loss together and with honesty can make kids feel less alone. You can also let them know you’re there even if they don’t want to talk. 

And learn about the difference between typical sadness and depression, so you can recognize and take signs of depression seriously


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